Sunday, March 20, 2011

It's Not Easy, Being White

Here's a true story.  A friend of someone I know is from South Africa.  He's now an American citizen.  So, when this friend of someone I know is asked to check one of those "what race are you" boxes on an application, he checks "African American."  There's just one itty-bitty caveat to the story: he's white.  The someone I know didn't understand my puzzlement.  

"So what determines race?" I asked.

"You're whatever race you think you are," the someone answered.

"So if I think I'm African American, does that make me African American?"

The someone nodded.  "It's what you feel inside."

Now, race scholars have argued for a long time that race is socially constructed. What does that mean?  The genetic determiners of race are so insignificant that there is more genetic variation among people within race than among people of different races.  However, saying that race is socially constructed is not the same thing as saying there's no such thing as race, which is what the someone and the someone's friend seemed to be saying.  

What's going on here?  A recent CNN article* titled, "Are Whites Racially Oppressed?" says that some whites think they are (racially oppressed). This is not a surprise. Whites have been troubled by "reverse discrimination" for decades.  I hear from white students all the time the unfairness of scholarships offered only to "minorities."  And, in an effort to right this terrible wrong, now there's a group in Texas that's offering scholarships to an under-served population: white males.  The CNN story is filled with interesting facts of this nature.  My favorite is this one: 57% of white evangelicals surveyed "identified discrimination against whites as being just as big as bigotry aimed at blacks and other minorities."  The "whites as victim" motif is common; if you're white, like I am, you've heard it before.  This is why we need to be colorblind, the argument follows.  No group should have an unfair advantage over another. That's racism. We shouldn't look at race.  

And perhaps the next step after "we shouldn't look at race" is the one taken by the someone and the someone's friend -- there's no such thing as race.  We're all the same.  I am who I think I am.  Except I'm not.  I'm white.  The world has seen me and my ancestors as white, and has afforded us the advantages that come with whiteness for generations.  To deny that now would require a kind of amnesia that, in other contexts, is the stuff of movies, and professional help would likely be in order. And even an amnesiac wouldn't have to look too far to see inequity that lives on as the legacy of discrimination. Just compare most urban schools with most suburban schools and you'll see what I mean. It ain't the white kids that are being offered a substandard education.  The idea that whites are racially oppressed would be laughable, if it weren't so very sad.


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